It is a common place to call Ayn Rand a psychopath. Because her philosophy is compatible in so many ways with psychopathy, I, too, accepted this point of view. But in my last blog post, I came across an anomaly that led me to revise that opinion. Ayn Rand was not a psychopath. She was a narcissist.
As I said in my last post, Altruism and Empathy, Ayn Rand considered altruism a great evil. She wrote an essay on The Virtue of Selfishness where she set out to rehabilitate the word, “selfish” and defend the right of the individual to put hirself first. Sounds psychopathic. But, while people called “selfless” in popular culture are usually obnoxiously self-negating (Yes, I have issues. My younger sister would always give-in when there was a conflict which made her look like a saint in the eyes of our mother. I wanted her to struggle and may the best one—me—win), psychopaths are selfless in a very real sense. We don’t have as firmly rooted identity. We can “be” anything we need to be at the moment for whatever purpose1.
I first encountered Ayn Rand’s writings in my teens. The Fountainhead came across as a paean to individuality, sticking to your convictions no matter what. That appealed to me (and still does). It didn’t really change my mind about anything. I already believed in thinking for oneself and resisting group-think. It was only when I read Atlas Shrugged that I realized what a right-wing political agenda she had. That did change my opinions on things. I became a Goldwater Republican at the time he ran for president. Every few years, I re-read Rand’s novels and got different things from them each time (the test of a good writer). I became increasingly critical of her politics and have documented my points of disagreement in essays on my website, Social Darwinism of Ayn Rand (see also Libertarianism and Psychopathy). This article is followed by links to essays about Ayn Rand in both her intellectual and personal life written by both myself and others. These essays uncovered a disturbing cultism that surrounded her during her career. This cultism radically contradicted everything she preached about individualism. This contradiction struck me as a paradox until now.
One key unlocks the door to the answer of how one of the most extreme advocates of individualism could preside over such a cult-like following that was the diametric opposite of individuality. The best, meaning the most intelligent and independent, of her students (Barbara and Nathaniel Branden) broke from the stifling conformity of her milieu and were expelled with much drama. The person to inherit her mantel was the man who was the most abject follower of the bunch (Leonard Peikoff). She became increasingly demanding of adulation and complete agreement in all areas of life as she aged. She also violated her own principles by accepting Medicare (under her legal but less well known name, Alice O’Connor) when she needed treatment for lung cancer. The key has a name which clarifies everything: Narcissism.
The narcissist needs “narcissistic supply” and Ayn Rand got it in spades from her circle of students/followers. They called their group “The Collective” in the spirit of irony, since they were really against collectivism. But the double irony was that they really were a collective. Ayn nourished an affectation of her trademark smoking with a cigarette holder. Barbara Branden copied her and soon everyone was doing it. It became more and more difficult to remain in Ayn’s good graces. If someone liked the wrong kind of music or fancied the wrong love interest, one was labeled with the damning judgement that this person had a “malevolent view of the universe.” Despite her narcissism, Ayn Rand was an outspoken critic of emotionalism. Her students were sneered at for any sentence starting with “I feel.” They were supposed to say, “I think.” Nevertheless, gatherings of the inner circle were often hothouses of emotion. Ayn was deeply intense and her followers all seemed to share that quality.
People who call her a psychopath do so on the basis of her moral philosophy. She insisted the universe was a “benevolent” place and life was about happiness. Sacrifice of individual happiness for the sake of alleviating someone else’s suffering was anathema. Some of the practical results of this value upset many readers. The scene in The Fountainhead in which the hero, Roark, blows up a housing project which he had designed on the ground that it would be built as he had designed it really bothered some people even though nobody was hurt (the buildings were empty). I think it provides a good point of exploration of socio-moral values. Does a man have the right to withhold his creativity if he isn’t rewarded sufficiently? If he does not have that right, isn’t that tantamount to slavery?
I have found a lot to criticize in Ayn Rand’s philosophy. But those who dismiss it too quickly should look at what the opposite could lead to. I submit Self-Esteem: The People’s Temple Seen through two people’s eyes. What people owe each other (if anything) is a topic that can be discussed endlessly.
I find it interesting that “victims/recovery blogs” more frequently target “narcissistic abuse” than psychopathic even though psychopaths are generally considered the most “evil” of the Bs. Sam Vaknin even labeled Adolf Hitler a narc (Hitler: the inverted Christ). I guess what it takes to buttress a narcissistic ego costs more in human terms than what an encounter with a psychopath usually costs (unless s/he’s a killer).
- Nathaniel Branden was her leading disciple and founder of the Nathaniel Branden Institute which offered lectures on Objectivism. He was also Rand’s clandistine lover for years. Their friendship ended in an ugly rift as is documented in his book, My Years With Ayn Rand.
- Barbara Branden, Nathaniel Branden’s wife and one of the main supporters of Objectivism and friend of Ayn Rand, wrote her own book about those years, The Passion of Ayn Rand.
- The Psychopathy of Ayn Rand I disagree with some of the Lucky Otter’s analysis of the books. For example, the changes in Roard’s design of the housing project are a lot more than minor and Roark had agreed to do this project with no pay or recognition. Having it go up as he designed it was his only reward. There were no people living in the project when he blew it up. In Atlas Shrugged, the strikers did NOT engineer the train crash. The incompetence of the people running it was the cause. But I basically agree with the article. I consider Ayn Rand a psychopath. There is more evidence in her life as well as her philosophy and writing.
- Ayn Rand Institute, run by Leonard Peikoff. An original member of “The Collective” (a name adopted by Ayn Rand’s inner circle in the spirit of irony), he was regarded by Nathaniel Branden and Ayn Rand as a “social metaphysician,” someone who got his sense of reality from other people rather than from his own rational use of his mind and senses. This was a very bad thing to Objectivists and it is ironic that he was the one in the group to remain the most steadfast and uncritical to Ayn’s original ideas as well as the one to avoid a major rift.
- The Unofficial “Passion of Ayn Rand” Movie Homepage
- The Sociology of the Ayn Rand Cult, by Murray Rothbard.
- Atlas as an Avenging God, my essay on Objectivism and Atlas Shrugged.
- Fiction Becomes Reality. I wouldn’t have included this link because associating Ayn Rand with an off-the-wall loon-ball like Glenn Beck seems rather unfair to Ayn Rand. However, her own Ayn Rand Institute had the link (which is where I got it from. So, if they’re not ashamed of the association, I guess they don’t need my protection.
- The Objectivist Center, Almost Identical to The Atlas Society page. Apparently, the two are one but which is the most current, I cannot say.
- Criticisms of Objectivism
- Why Ayn Rand Was Wrong about Altruism, Selfishness, and Human Nature. Eric Michael Johnson, Evonomics
- Ayn Rand vs. the Pygmies. Groups and Gossip Drove the Evolution of Human Nature
- Romancing the Stone Cold Killer. Ayn Rand’s prototypical hero a murderer.
- Atlas Sucked, by Scott.
- Ayn Rand Railed Against Government Benefits, But Grabbed Social Security and Medicare When She Needed Them